ZOO-ology column: Postures, ways of moving may help identify bird species

Kestrels are sparrow hawks, and can be seen in this area during the winter and can be easily spotted in more open areas.

By Judie Farnsworth

I'll bet there's someone you can recognize just by the way they walk, stand or gesture.

But have you ever really looked at the way birds move, sit or fly? Bird species have tell-tale ways of moving and postures that may help identify them. Flight patterns include gliding, soaring, flapping, hovering and combinations of these - gliding being the simplest.

Many small birds like wrens, warblers and sparrows fly in a straight line with quick wing beats. This flight pattern can immediately rule out birds like cardinals and woodpeckers, among others, which have a bouncing, undulating flight with wing beats and glides. If you see a bird (often swallows) skimming low over a pond in the summer, you may not know exactly what it is but you might know what it isn't. You wouldn't expect to see a dove or mockingbird flying like that. You could cross those birds out of your mind's list before consulting a bird book.

Looking at a pasture area, you see a large bird flying low over the ground with deep wing beats as it searches for food. Another large bird appears, also flying low but with moth-like wing beats. Someone who has spent time looking at birds would know they were not the same species. The first was probably a harrier (hawk) and the second a short-eared owl (in the right season).

In the same area, there may be groups of smaller birds that flap and quickly sail down into the grass. They are most likely meadowlarks and easily recognizable by their flight. A medium-sized bird sits high on a wire. It flies out, hovers and dives down. It's a kestrel (sparrow hawk). It hovers by flying into the wind at a speed equal to the wind. Kestrels are in this area during the winter and can be easily seen in more open areas.

Postures offer clues. Nighthawks (spring and summer birds) sit diagonally when on a wire. A flycatcher sits singly on the highest exposed perch. It "sallies" out and back to the same place. Cedar waxwings also sit high but in groups. They fly off as a compact unit.

Does the bird hop like a blue jay or sparrow or run like a robin or killdeer? Does it sit horizontally, vertically or diagonally? How does it land? Does it swoop upward to a perch, fly straight in or glide down? It appears there is nothing unimportant in the natural world. How absolutely fascinating each tiny part can be. Don't miss a thing.

Judie Farnsworth is a longtime volunteer at the Texas Zoo specializing in educational programs.